The recent spate of arrests targeting Balady dancers in Egypt has ignited the continuing debate over Balady dance and the freedom of women to express themselves in any way they see fit.
An article by BBC News, revealed that Suha Mohammed Ali, known as the Egyptian ‘Shakira ‘and Dalia Kamal Youssef stage name ‘Bardis’, were both detained due to raunchy moves and costumes in their music videos. Armenian dancer Safinaz was also subpoenaed for questioning by Egyptian prosecutors for performing in a dance costume modelled after the Egyptian flag.
In an interview by Alfan, venerated Balady dancer Lucy, the last in a long line of distinguished ‘old school’ performers, said, “ While Safinaz is undoubtedly an accomplished dancer, she has gone beyond the accepted moral boundaries of this traditional art form.” In Lucy’s opinion, the style of modern dancers is more boudoir, than Balady. She adds, “A big part of being a respectable dancer is presenting your art with sophistication and style.”
While Lucy’s statement is justified and certainly beyond reproach, the boldness of modern Balady dancers contains layers of coded social connotations that may not be readily apparent. The growing number of ‘vampish’ and gaudy tableaux of Balady dance, embody years of female resentment and frustration at the absolute power their male counterparts wield. This brash display is a strong and defiant statement that proclaims, “My body and morality are mine to do with as I please”.
For years Balady dance practices in Egypt, have been subject to strict guidelines. In a code of practise dating back to 1911, the ‘Theatrical Show Edict’, covers a series of regulations, including the respect of ‘national morality’ and ‘good conduct as dictated by custom and tradition’. Among other stringent restrictions, costuming regulations decree that the stomach and belly button must be concealed at all times, or the performer will be held in breach of the ‘Morality Code’.
Female autonomy and sexuality is a deeply contested issue in the patriarchal societies of the Arab world and the war being waged on Balady dancers has its roots in the expected submission of females to the social norms dictated by father, brother, husband, and son. Male dominance, be it religious, social, or legislative, insures that Arab women are kept subservient and passive. This inequitable treatment of Balady dancers and women in general, is far more about power and submission than morality and tradition.
The winds of change sweeping through the Middle East today, are not confined to struggles over politics and religion. The need for a more equitable society is relentlessly stirring fissures on every front. In this context, audacious Balady dancers brazenly gyrating in school girl costumes are far more indicative of revolution than prostitution.
Please note: English links and personal experience form the bulk of sources for this article. However, in some instances Arabic sources have been translated and cited by the author Hanan Ahlam Abboud. These links have also been included due to the absence of the relevant material in English.
Written by Hanan Ahlam Abboud 2015 (c)